I’ll do it tomorrow: Procrastination and the art of putting things off

Written by Paul Eccleson on Monday April 24, 2023

Perhaps you are the kind of person that always waits right up until the deadline to hand in a report. You might have a tendency to put off a difficult conversation, or be reluctant to start a piece of work because you don’t like the thought that it won’t be perfect. We’ve all, at some time or other, thought in this way and avoided a task. In this article, we’ll look at some of the reasons for procrastination, why it can be really bad for us, and what we can do to overcome this mañana instinct. 

Our proclivity for putting things off comes from a variety of sources. 

  • Fear learned from a past experience. If we had a particularly bad experience when we presented a paper in the past, our brains will associate the negative outcome of that first experience with what we are about to start. Regardless of how illogical it is to link two very different events, the primitive part of our brain is likely to have learned that ‘presentation’ equates to ‘public humiliation’. That’s the way our animal associative learning works. 
  • Perfectionism. We might delay starting a task due to the fear that it won’t be good enough. In so doing, we are negotiating with ourselves – I can’t start because I’m not good enough. This rules us out of the deal before we even get into the negotiating room. In its extremity, it can lead to impostor syndrome, a belief that one’s work isn’t good enough and never will be. 

  • Low self-confidence. In some societies, expressing what you want is seen as pushy and arrogant. ‘I want isn’t I get’ was a phrase my parents used with me a lot. This perception of pushiness leads to down-playing your rights and over-emphasising the rights of others. The thinking goes: ‘I won’t start this conversation because I don’t feel that I have the right to begin’. 

  • We are anticipation engines. If we think something is going to be unpleasant, then our bodies produce the hormones, enzymes and physiological responses that make it a real unpleasant experience without us even beginning. Just believing something will be bad makes us feel that way immediately. 

At its root, procrastination makes us feel guilty. We know that we should have started something, and we feel that we have let ourselves down when we have dodged the issue. Unfortunately, we are as human beings very adept at finding reasons why we don’t want to do something. In our world of email, WhatsApp, social media and 24-hour news, there are many distractions to lead us away from our main task. Our guilt is assuaged if we can find plausible reasons for our procrastination ('something more important came up, so I’ll do it another time’), and our modern interruption-driven world provides us with plenty of such reasons. The problem is that if we repeatedly put things off, it can begin to get in the way of a productive life. We fail to deliver at work, and regret the actions that we haven’t taken. Rumination and self-recrimination can be debilitating. 

How can we turn ourselves around when we find ourselves repeatedly avoiding starting work? Here are a few suggestions that may help. 

  • No one did anything remotely interesting right first time. Perfectionism is a nonsense. Do great books get written without editors, drafts and re-work? Great science builds on the work of others. We didn’t get to the Moon without lots of failures on the way. Being a perfectionist isn’t just being hard on yourself, it’s being impossibly hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. Just start and learn as you go. 

  • Get into habits. Use a ‘to-do’ list and clear the difficult stuff first. Put aside time in the day to close your phone, ignore email and concentrate on clearing down the tough things on your list. Do this every day, on repeat, until it becomes a habit. 

  • Reward yourself for having cleared a worrisome item. Have your favourite coffee, pick your favourite chocolate bar, walk in your favourite park: whatever small reward you would look forward to. It not only gives you a positive goal to work towards – ‘Only 10 more minutes, and then Bargain Hunt’ [1] – but helps your primordial brain generate positive associations with getting things done and re-sets those learned associations. 

  • Break down a task into manageable chunks. Big projects become much less daunting in smaller chunks. Plan your work so it delivers a series of short-term wins that you can celebrate and reward yourself for. It’ll make you feel good about your achievements and give you a real sense of progress. 

  • Walk towards the issue. When you least want to do something is the time you need to do it. Shy away now, and you’ll get into the avoid-guilty-justify cycle. That cycle makes it more likely that you will dodge the issue over and over again. If you don’t want to speak to your boss, do it now. 

  • If you are really worried about the consequences of starting, visualise the problem as something small and humorous. A difficult performance conversation becomes a donkey in a sombrero inside a jam jar. It will help put things into perspective, and the issues that you are so concerned about are never as large as you anticipate them to be. They certainly aren’t as large as the guilt and regret that you will feel if you duck the challenge. 

We should all be cautious about the power of short, self-help articles, and seek broader support if procrastination is a really debilitating issue for us. However, we’ve all been in a situation where we have put something off and regretted it. That’s always painful, so let’s get on with things positively. Starting now. 

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[1] I fear I may have ‘over-declared’ at this point.


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